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MARY KRAMER: EAA critics, take note of the results

From Crain’s Detroit Business

By Mary Kramer

May 31, 2013

Everybody fights with everybody.

That’s how a character in Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, “Back to Blood,” describes Miami and its cauldron of races and ethnicities.

But you could say the same thing about Detroit.

Case in point: The assault on the fledgling Educational Achievement Authority, the new entity tasked with improving student achievement in the worst schools in Detroit.

A steady stream of headlines covers accusations of fudging some facts on government grant applications and unauthorized loans from Detroit Public Schools to start operations.

But somebody should do a survey of parents of children in the EAA schools with a simple question: Do you think your child is doing better now than two years ago?

A series of articles and opinion pieces, slanted to cast the EAA as a school reform failure, has one aim: To halt the expansion of the EAA statewide, beyond the initial 15 Detroit schools deemed the worst performing based on state test scores.

One example: State Sen. Bert Johnson’s op-ed castigating the EAA and reporting, erroneously, that the schools were so mismanaged that a handful of Teach for America teachers walked off the job en masse at Pershing High School in Detroit.

(Never happened, says Annis Stubbs, who runs Teach for America in Detroit.)

Opponents of school reform do a better job with the media than reformers, Michelle Rhee told me at the Mackinac Policy Conference. That’s true of unions who oppose reform and also conservatives who challenge “common core” standards, she said.

Rhee, the school reformer who created StudentsFirst after her tenure as school chief for Washington, D.C., now spends time lobbying state legislatures to create school reform.

At Mackinac, she urged opinion leaders to create bipartisan reforms that focus on children — not on the governance debates too many adults prefer.

The EAA hand-picks teachers and principals. It uses technology to make sure that students master material before they are bumped to another grade level. Last week, the EAA finally went on the offensive, releasing results of latest testing that showed 56 percent of students in the 15 schools demonstrated at least a year’s worth of gains in reading and 65 percent gained a year in math.

Remember, these 15 schools comprising the EAA were the worst in Detroit.

Ric DeVore, regional president for PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and a business leader deeply engaged in efforts to improve education, said he had visited a handful of EAA schools and always asks the same thing of students: What is different about this school now than the school you attended before?

Two answers dominate: There’s no fighting. And: I’m not pushed along before I “get” the material.

Maybe the EAA’s critics should spend less time arguing about governance and more time talking to children and their parents.